Desperate deeds by underdogs hung out to dry by corrupt bureaucracy

Hamish McDonald Asia-Pacific Editor
March 8, 2008
IT WILL be scant comfort for the 10 Australian travel agents taken hostage by a desperate man in China this week that the location was the same as another famous kidnapping, the "Xian Incident" of 1936, when the Nationalist generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek was seized by a rival warlord.

Xia Tao, the kidnapper this week, was no big player or involved in any political campaign - just one of the despairing individuals being pushed to the wall in the relentless competition for survival in a China that is now less socialist in practice than most Western countries.

His protest, which resulted in him being shot dead at a highway toll booth by a police sniper, was over traffic fines. Laid off by one of Xian's aerospace factories, he had put his money into an informal taxi but was being bled dry by police fines.

It was just one of 100,000 incidents of social protest and conflict that China's Public Security Bureau list as occurring every year, and this is probably an understatement. This incident would not have been widely reported at all if foreigners had not been involved.

The grievances are manifold, but are often to do with unpaid wages for the millions working as migrant labour in urban construction sites and factories, or land and housing forcibly acquired by developers with the help of local Communist Party officials and police.

The flawed legal system offers little redress. Plaintiffs appear before judges appointed by the local party hierarchy, who have in-house political committees giving them instructions on verdicts. There is usually only one level of appeal, to a provincial court where judges and their political advisers are part of the same patronage networks as local officials. There is the distant hope of taking the grievance further.

One avenue is to petition a complaints office run by the State Council (the cabinet of the state apparatus) and the central party machinery, located in a rundown district on the south side of Beijing. The other is to try to attract the interest of the Supreme People's Court, also in Beijing.

But to get to Beijing, petitioners have to run the gauntlet of their local police, who watch out for them on trains and buses to the capital, and if necessary pursue them into Beijing and kidnap them back to their home town before their potentially embarrassing complaint can be registered.

Even so, the volume of petitioners making it to provincial capitals and to Beijing became a flood as China's rapid growth caused massive human disruption, with petitions and visits of complaint rising from 4.8 million in 1995 to 12.7 million in 2005.

In September last year, Chris Buckley, an Australian reporter working for Reuters, exposed one appalling official response: Nanyang city officials in Henan province were running a private prison in Beijing for their own city's petitioners and any that police from other places might pay to have detained.

In October, Beijing officials moved in to demolish the "petitioners' village" on the southern edge of the city, which held a rotating population of about 4000 people visiting the complaints office nearby.

This is the "harmonious society" that the Chinese President, Hu Jintao, says he is trying to build, and the peaceful city that the Communist Party will be showing off to the world at the Olympics in August.

Some petitioners maintain an almost saintly courtesy and naive hope that the system will work in their favour, a reflection of the traditional Chinese villager's view that if only the Emperor knew what his wicked local mandarins were doing ?

In 2002, I visited Fu Xiancai, the leader of villagers displaced by the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River who were complaining they had been cheated of their compensation. He showed me thousands of signatures on the petition he had been trying to get noticed in Beijing. Later that night, police came to my hotel and seized all notes and photographs of the meeting.

In 2006, Fu was severely beaten, thrown down an embankment and left paralysed from the neck down in what police dismissed as a brawl. Yet when visited by my successor, Mary-Anne Toy, he sent an apology for the "inconvenience" I had been put through earlier.

Others are not so gracious. One of the HIV-positive victims of the provincial government's disastrous blood-harvesting scandal in Henan, still subject to a cover-up, fantasised openly to me about attacking the officials concerned with a syringe of infected blood.

In May 2002, an aggrieved man carried a bottle of petrol aboard a domestic flight into Dalian in Liaoning province and set it alight, causing the death of all 103 people on board.

China's public security apparatus has the lid firmly closed on organised protest and legal petitions.

What they cannot predict, and cannot prevent, are the suicidal last protests of desperate individuals taking some of society over the edge with them.